THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Toronto Pair Holds the Key to Season

Lost in the small print of Saturday's scoring summaries was a significant event for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, keys to the Maple Leafs' drive to the playoff semifinals last spring, each scored in Toronto's 5-3 victory over the Kings at the Forum. It was only the third time this season that they had scored in the same game, a feat they managed 12 times last season.

That's not merely trivia. Because Gilmour and Andreychuk have struggled, so have the Maple Leafs, whose 13-11-5 record is their high-water mark this season.

Gilmour, fourth in scoring last season with 27 goals and 111 points, has only seven goals and 22 points in 28 games. Over 84 games, that projects to 66 points. Andreychuk, who had 21 power-play goals last season, has six. He has 23 points in 29 games, well off last year's 99-point pace.

Gilmour had surgery on both feet during the off-season and has been slow regaining his fitness. He also had to get used to new linemates. Andreychuk was taken off Gilmour's line to play with Mike Ridley and Randy Wood, leaving Gilmour to center for Mats Sundin and Mike Gartner. When Gartner hurt his foot, Warren Rychel moved in on the right side.

But there's no discernible reason Andreychuk, who does his best work around the net, has stayed a step or two away from the fray. Sundin has been brilliant and Ridley is a fine two-way player, but without big numbers from Gilmour and Andreychuk, the Maple Leafs will have a short spring.

"Those two guys carried our team last year, so we don't panic," said Bill Watters, Toronto's assistant general manager. "Andreychuk is getting his chances. Gilmour just doesn't have his edge yet. Look at the big scorers on every team who are struggling. It's a malaise that's unique because of the (shortened) season. I don't think Wayne Gretzky is finished, and I sure as hell don't think Andreychuk and Gilmour are."

Andreychuk anticipates that he and the Leafs will get going.

"There were a lot of high expectations for this hockey team but we made a lot of changes, and when you do that in a short season, that's going to be a factor," Andreychuk said. "We had some tough travel early, but we were home for 2 1/2 weeks (before a four-game trip to San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Vancouver) so we don't have any excuses.

"Teams are playing much tighter defensively, so it's not easy for anybody to score. The good players are getting held up in neutral ice, and that's going to hurt production. But I'm not worried. Doug Gilmour is a hard-working guy, and he's going to create chances to score. I got off to a slow start. I think the lockout hurt me. But as the season progresses, I'm feeling better."

PRESSING MATTERS

The Montreal Canadiens' problems have carried over to the press box, with writers from French-language newspapers accusing their English-speaking counterparts of trying to get Coach Jacques Demers fired. The French press has also said English-speaking players are undermining Demers.

In any language, it's clear Demers' difficulties stem from having a team lacking in talent and offensive threats. It's easy to blame General Manager Serge Savard for trading John LeClair to Philadelphia--where he has 16 goals and 30 points in 18 games--for Mark Recchi, who has six goals, but that's not the whole story. LeClair had many chances in Montreal but didn't produce. Demers might have found a better center for him, but it's debatable whether he showed enough to merit one.

Demers is an excellent motivator and a passionate coach, and it would be unjust for him to fall victim to a cultural feud.

NO PAT HAND

The Sabres' joy over Pat LaFontaine's return from knee surgery was short-lived.

LaFontaine is fine--he had a goal and an assist last Thursday in his first game since November, 1993--but goaltender Dominik Hasek strained his rotator cuff in that game and will be out for two weeks.

The starting job fell to Robb Stauber, who was acquired from the Kings in the Grant Fuhr trade. Stauber hasn't fared any better than Fuhr has with the Kings. His first two starts were a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa Saturday and a 6-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, when Coach John Muckler had to be restrained from going into the stands to attack a fan.

ON THE SPOT

Craig Janney might finally have escaped the dark cloud that hovered over him during the first half of the season.

While in St. Louis, he was benched by Coach Mike Keenan for not working hard enough. That, coupled with family problems, prompted Janney to leave the team. When his $1.85-million salary discouraged potential trades, the San Jose Sharks agreed to take him, provided the Blues paid $500,000 of his salary.

It seemed like a good fit, given the Sharks' need for scoring, but Janney was benched in the third period against Toronto last Wednesday, two games into his San Jose career. However, he stepped it up Sunday to collect three assists as the Sharks rallied for a 5-3 victory over the Flames at Calgary. Janney set up two power-play goals, the first time since the season opener the Sharks had scored more than one power-play goal in a game.

"Poor Craig," said ESPN analyst Mike Milbury. "I coached him (in Boston) and he's a really talented player. He just can't quite get over the hump (of being labeled soft). I have seen him take some big hits to make a play."

BAD NEWS

The Boston Bruins still don't know if Al Iafrate will play for them this season.

Iafrate, acquired from Washington last March for Joe Juneau, left training camp in September after claiming he was being pushed to play after an operation on a still-sore knee. After an examination in Boston, he was urged to undergo arthroscopic surgery. Reluctant to go under the knife again, he got a second opinion and was told simply to ease up on his training for two weeks.

Whatever training he had been doing couldn't have been strenuous. Those who have seen him say he has gained about 20 pounds.

THANKS FOR THE INVITATION

It was nice of Commissioner Gary Bettman to invite Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., to a meeting with International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch last week in Switzerland to discuss NHL players' participation in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Bettman and Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, had twice before announced they want NHL players in the hockey tournament, but neglected to get Goodenow's approval. Had he balked, it would have been a huge embarrassment for the league--one Goodenow no doubt would have enjoyed as a last "gotcha" after the lockout.

SLAP SHOTS

St. Louis players were stunned when Keenan sent center Ian Laperriere to Peoria of the International Hockey League last week. Laperriere, one of the top rookie scorers, made a bad pass and took a bad penalty in one period against Edmonton on Tuesday and was gone Wednesday. It was a message move by Keenan, who says Laperriere's exile will be short. . . . The top two teams in the East, the Penguins and the Nordiques, split their season series, 2-2. Quebec won the last two but lost Wendel Clark to a hamstring injury Saturday.

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